Friday, December 30, 2016

The Benedict Option: An Infinitely Deferred Grumble

A number of months ago, Rod Dreher published his idea about the Benedict Option, in light of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. This was a call for conservative Christians (I'm not sure what exactly he means) to cease political struggle and go dormant for a time, working to preserve the Christic cultural apparatus of the West. This is what Dreher saw happen in the Benedictine monasteries in the 5th century onward, where classical learning was preserved during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It is the Day of the Barbarians.

This is incredibly stupid. Historically, it is in error, as the so-called Barbarians did quite well preserving Roman heritage through adaptation, even envy, of Roman systems of political economy, social organization, and cultural wealth. But more importantly, this will not occur. A call to hive off and preserve a way of life is only possible with tectonic sociological shifts (and I'm ignoring the fact that Dreher's "conservative Christian" is not a unified sociological body, let alone concept). The Jews only persevered so distinctly because of the Ghetto foisted upon them in Europe, and a conceptual Dhimmitude in Muslim dominated lands. Reactionary paranoia aside, I don't think this will happen.

However, what will happen is that this Traditionalism will remain an ardent critic of the regime, whatever it is, while forfeiting everything functionally. That is to say, they will be squeaky gears in the machine. Or in other words, they will be grumblers, but well adjusted members of society. The pseudo-eschatology of a renewed Christendom will never come to pass, and in a hundred years or so, the gap between Dreher's generation and a future generation of conservatives will be wildly different.

Carl Schmitt, a conservative, even a counter-revolutionary, political theorist and jurist, explains this phenomenon, as it played out post-French Revolution:
The Restoration fought the activist spirit of the French Revolution with ideas such as tradition and custom and with the belief that history progresses slowly. Ideas of that sort could have led to a complete negation of natural reason and to an absolute moralistic passivity that would have considered becoming active altogether evil[...]In the final analysis, extreme traditionalism actually meant an irrational rejection of every intellectually conscious decision
In other words, this kind of conservatism maintains a kind of pathetic, heel-dragging, existence. Neither Human history (i.e. Revolutionary moments), nor evolutionary biology (i.e. punctuated equilibrium) pans out for this sort of strained resistance. And Biblical notions of providence certainly do not reveal this, though the Bible is usually the last resort for these cultural-conservative Christians, a deposit of proof-texts. It won't last even as it is groaning under the weight of greater and great strains of change.

I'm not a conservative, at least not in the cultural or socio-political sense I've described above, but the Benedict Option is silly for any serious conservative. It makes more sense to hitch a wagon to Donald Trump or (dare I say it!) Hillary Clinton in an attempt to steer or pressure these elements to preserve a particular vision of the American Empire they are all committed to. But I suppose every generation needs a gaggle of political buffoons, false prophets who fall over themselves.

Christ, our God, save us from this foolishness!


  1. even within the confines of The American Conservative Noah Millman zinged Dreher on the conceptual problem at the heart of the Benedict Option--you can't have this work if there's the Great Commission. Christianity is evangelistic in a way that Judaism isn't so how would Dreher's neo-monastic approach make any sense in a post-industrial West?

    1. That's not exactly true. Medieval Jews competed with Christians in Spain, preaching to lesser lords before the Berber invasion. Jewish tax collectors among the Western part of the Frankish empire pressured and bribed villages with tax breaks for conversion. And then there's the case of the Khazars where a semi-barbarous people stationed near the Black Sea had a national conversion, the first Jewish monarchy since the abolition of the Herodians.

      This reflects a long history, sometimes really bitter in the Eastern Mediterranean, between converts. The sharp tongue of St. John Chrysostom was less anti-semitic as fiercely competitive. The Jews were inspired by similar passages, like that in Isaiah and elsewhere, to convert Gentiles, but of course it was different (i.e. Christ's reprimand to the Pharisees for their type of evangelism).

      It wasn't until the Ghetto and fierce retaliatory crackdowns, beginning in the Gregorian reforms (11th century~), that fundamentally changed the Jews. Theoretically, the same could happen to Christians. One might argue that is the residual effect among Greek Orthodox, who suffered something similar under Turkish rule.


  2. fair enough.

    I think Millman's critique of Dreher's conception of the Benedict Option may still be sound, that the kind of outward-looking evangelistic stance of any form of Christian faith would seem to preclude the sort of thing that seems strongly implied in the Benedict Option. He might not have the history right with respect to a lot of details but I'm willing to grant the pertinence of his point about the B.O. seeming to need a mentality that flies in the face of what we would tend to understand the Gospel to be, proclamation moving outward rather than a defensive bunker mentality.

    1. The historical facts were to make that point. Unless there's some severe crackdown, along the Ghetto-scale, changing an outward looking Christian view would be very difficult. And reactionary paranoia about mass persecution from a liberal state withstanding, I don't think this will happen. With the election of Trump, it makes BenOp people look sort of foolish, like a kind of boy who cried wolf. I assume that's what the Franklin Grahams and Jerry Falwell Jr.s will try to say, if they don't just ignore the Drehers of this country into non-existence.